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swimmin’ wid da fishes
with ankles chained by writer's blocks
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

I left for a business trip on October 10th. The trip was scheduled to last eleven days. That’s a lot of time spent alone in a hotel room, letting waves of TV nothing wash over you when the work is done. Especially while camped in a place with the moniker SPAMtown, USA! So I thought after a 12-hour day giving complete strangers a mental root canal and shoveling through paperwork, I’d have plenty of time to write.

When I take big trips like this, I pack the same tools: my writing notebook, dictionary, thesaurus, a couple of newspaper clippings or ripped-out magazine pages for facts, and Elizabeth Berg’s Out Into the Open for a jumpstart. This time, I also brought a lovely 2nd draft of an Intrepidite’s novel to edit. My Intrepid column was due before I left, but fortunately every time the editors’ whip marks heal, I forget the pain of missing the deadline.

I had a plan.

-Develop my IM column as a rant against the hypocrisy of Barbra Streisand’s $6 million fundraiser for the Democratic Party and her cataract-riddled vision of charity.

-Draft the 5th and 6th chapters of Flo the potato chip girl and introduce Irene, the Hormel girl.

-Outline the idea I have for a short story about a man who “needs to be married.”

-Edit Jael’s novel.


I spent a lot of time at the library. I discovered The Streisand Foundation had over $4 million in assets at year-end 2000, yet had only bestowed a half-million in grants that year. People who need people, indeed. I felt the bile rise from my gall bladder to my brain, preparing the attack…

…and then I just didn’t care.

It’s Barbra Streisand. Who really cares? I didn’t have a new angle on the absurdity. I couldn’t drive the final railway spike into the subject. And again, it’s Barbra “I Will Only Give Concerts for Causes I Believe in So I Can Show Myself As an Arteest Who Cares” Streisand. She didn’t need any more press from me.

I really hate it when a column idea withers. What to do, what to do. I ticked through my notebook. The sniper? No. The putrid marshmallow crème that is Shania Twain’s new album? No. Fall colors? No. Why I still watch “Will and Grace”, even though non-opposable thumbed primates are writing the show now? No. Around Day Four, I closed my notebook and thought, “Well, something will come to me.”

So I read People magazine. I hardly ever read People magazine unless I’m in the doctor’s office, or the checkout line, or, in this case, when I take it from my car dealership after I paid $425 to replace my brakes. Call it lagniappe. And there was Mega Streisand, quoted for her Shakespearean misquote. I laughed, but still couldn’t follow the idea.

I doodled more ideas for Flo, the potato chip girl. I drew a few diagrams linking characters and decided she had an addiction to Valium and it’s all Irene’s fault (Irene, who looks suspiciously like me more and more. Wait. That didn't come out right.) Irene got hooked on it while working as a singing and dancing marketing wonder known as a “Hormel Girl.” And when that stint ends, she’s very despondent and…

…I just couldn’t get the words onto the page. The idea is unfettered in my mind, but as soon as I tried to make the transfer, it becomes all, well, fettered.

So I watched the MTV "Cribs" episode on Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Mansion. Since I don’t plan on getting implants or hangin’ in the grotto with DiCaprio, I knew it was as close as I would get to this pop culture marvel. I considered the experience educational, as it reminded me that Hefner started Playboy in 1953. In essence, I was doing research, considering the primary time period of my novel.

I toyed with the short story. I met someone the other day that used the phrase “And if you’re one of those people who just need to be married, like me, being separated is very painful.” I was curious. Are there people who need to be married? Or can they just not be alone? What’s the difference? And did he miss being married, or the person? It’s a great exercise for me to write from the male perspective and I had the visual of the guy – much more handsome than not, successful, not some loser-over-the-subway-grate…

…and then lost interest. Which, as most writers know, if you lose interest in your characters, then you’re not listening to them.

So I watched the E! expose’ on Michael Hutchence. I grew up loving INXS, and even though I had seen Behind the Music at least four times, the former radio programmer in me needed a trivia fix. So I relived my past twice. Hutchence never married whatsername, yet hated to be alone. I wondered why he was so afraid to commit. I wondered why he killed himself, and what happened to all that insurance money. I wondered if a suicide would work well in my story, or if it had flat-lined already.

I read the first half of Jael’s novel about two weeks ago, red-inked it here and there, and figured it would be no problem to finish it during this trip in a couple of nights before going to sleep...

…except I can’t edit that way. I make little pencil marks by things on the first read, then re-read to see if what I marked before still requires attention. All I’ve had the brain capacity to read was the mutual meaningless encounter of USA Today.

It’s Day 10 of my trip, and this morning I woke up with the idea for my column: the fact that I didn’t have an idea for my column, but plenty of excuses why I didn’t write.

I have to admit I was just tired and didn’t desire to write – no other excuses are acceptable. A block is a block. And that’s what many of us do. We spend a lot of time crafting creative excuses, instead of acknowledging the block and finding a way to break it so we can do the nasty with the real creative process. The passion for writing alone should do this, but every so often it helps to be reminded that if we want it bad enough, just like anything else, we will find the time and inspiration.

I read a review of Donna Tartt’s new novel The Little Friend recently. It’s been 10 years since her highly acclaimed The Secret History. I’m not saying I write as well as she does…

…but now at least I don’t feel bad about letting 10 days go by.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


operation sunbeam
cassie and marlo listen in
by tracey l. kelley
topic: writing
published: 6.29.09

one of the order of the three
by tracey l. kelley
topic: writing
published: 7.29.09


matt morin
10.23.02 @ 2:17a

I get in moods to write. And when I'm in that mood, I try to write as much as I can. Usually, it all turns out pretty good.

But when I need to write, that's when I have trouble. Oh, I can get something decent down on the page, but it's usually not my best work.

So when I'm not in the mood to write, that's my excuse - if I force myself to write, it'll just turn out crappy anyway.

tracey kelley
10.23.02 @ 9:37a

I love those writing moods. It's like you've created your own time zone.

jael mchenry
10.23.02 @ 12:38p

It totally depends on what I'm writing. Lately, I've been very lucky -- when I've needed to put some pages on my creative projects, I've felt inspired. One of these days that won't happen, and then I'll really be up the creek.

sarah ficke
10.23.02 @ 12:43p

Tracey, you're absolutely right about making up excuses. I do it all of the time, when actually it just means that I'm a)lazy or b)not that interested in my topic.

tracey kelley
10.23.02 @ 1:01p

Now, see, that's exactly the thing, Jael. I firmly believe the process is self-sustaining. It's when you unplug - even for a couple of days - that's when trouble begins.

Not being interested in one of your ideas is tough, isn't it? It's like you've kicked a dog to the curb or something.

russ carr
10.23.02 @ 1:25p

And your ideas look down on you from their cage on the shelf and they've got those big doe eyes and fuzzy ears and the timid, plaintive cry that says, "Won't you ever play with me again?"

So you take them out of the box and they instantly grow fangs and nine-inch claws and tear your soul out and sit on your chest and laugh at you.

jeffrey walker
10.24.02 @ 2:02p

Note to Tracey on Hutchence paragraph: Insurance companies don't pay if you kill yourself normally.

other than that, I know what you mean - the inability to get things complete as you'd like. it sucks.

daniel castro
10.24.02 @ 4:12p

I love and hate writing moods. I love it when there's something on my mind that I want to write about, and I do it. But I hate it when I want to write and there's nothing to write about. (Not necessarily, but oh well, then I'm just being lazy.)

matt morin
10.24.02 @ 4:36p

Or when you have something you have to write about, but don't want to write.

adam kraemer
10.24.02 @ 5:07p

Actually, most insurance companies will eventually pay out something if you commit suicide, but they have a waiting period of, like, a year, or something. They don't want you getting life insurance just to kill yourself, but it would be bad PR if they refused to pay up to every widow whose husband swallowed his gun after 30 years of marriage.

greg cunningham
10.27.02 @ 1:48p

Whew! At first I thought the 'guy who NEEDS to be married' short story was gonna be about ME!

(Okay, I realize that's so vain/Carly Simon-ish).

Then you noted that it was the GUY who 'needed', not an outsiders pov, and I realized I was in the clear.

(And especially after you lost interest in the character I knew it COULDN'T be about me).

(Oops, there I go again).

I am convinced there are more people out there who don't need to be married, and more accurately, probably shouldn't be married.

As well as have kids.

I see a coralation to the B.S. angle
(that would be, appropriately, Barbara Streisand) and the 'need to be' married fella angle. Both are cluelessly or naively striving for an 'ideal' or a concept of the way things could/should be, (Democrtic Party*** 'compassion' and marital 'bliss') but both are unrealistic as to what that really entails.

***(or Republican, or Green, or Socialist-No Rush, here).

Blind devotion to a political party or a concept (marriage, God, The Dollar, etc.) is blissful in it's ignorance. I say question everything-know the good, the bad and the ugly before comitting.

Because, guess what. Ultimately, love ISN'T all you need. Because if we expect love to be the ultimate we will ultimately be disappointed. No emotion, concept or thing can live up to that pressure. If we look

greg cunningham
10.27.02 @ 1:49p

look at LOVE (or political pov, or currency. or God) in a similar light, take it's good and it's bad, let none of any one of them rule the day, then we will get the most out of each.

Love is no better/no worse than having job security, like having good family ties, like having peace of mind. None of them will get you through life simply on it's own.


greg cunningham
10.27.02 @ 1:58p

As a formal Prudential Insurance salesman (relax, I quit) I can tell you that there is a law that requires Insurance companies to pay for suicide policy holders, but the policy has to be at least two years old.


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